In 1767 a British ship commanded by Samuel Wallis anchored at the island of Tahiti. The island had a population estimated at around 50,000 (about 125 persons per square mile). Tahitians are said to have arrived in the Society Islands sometime in the 300s CE, while these islands were uninhabited by humans. What Wallis found in 1767 was a hierarchical society that was also communal and accustomed to conflict and war.
Tahitians in a massive number of canoes greeted Wallis' ship. The British traded beads and other items for a new supply of food, and the Tahitians were interested in cloth and things of iron that the British had. The Tahitians understood well enough what private property was but they began taking what they could.
In time, the British resorted to gunfire to protect themselves from thievery. The British were secure on their ship and the Tahitians were secure on land, with Tahiti's chiefs wary of British firepower. To pacify the British and renew trade, the chiefs recruited women of low birth (lower at least than nobility) to offer themselves to the British crewmen. Prostitution had not been a part of life in Tahiti, but sexual hospitality had. A lively trade resumed, and the seaworthiness of the HMS Dolphin was threatened as the crew pulled nails from the ship to trade for sexual favors – nails with which the Tahitians made fishing hooks.
William Bligh, Captain of the HMS Bounty
Wallis claimed Tahiti for King George III. The Europeans found the Tahitians eager to trade.
Tahitian culture included human sacrifice. The Tahitians offered their gods dead humans, fish and turtles. Their main deity, Oro, was a god of war who enjoyed fighting and demanded human sacrifices. In times of peace and he was worshipped as Oro-i-te-tea-moe (Oro of the spear laid down). He was a god also of the fine arts. He was believed to dwell on the island of Bora Bora and to have flown across the sky as a flame.
The year following Wallis' visit, the French explorer Louis Bougainville arrived and claimed Tahiti for France. Then in 1774 the British returned – an expedition led by Captain James Cook. And Cook came again in 1777. Cook estimated the population of Tahiti to be around 200,000. (Maybe he didn't count well.) He found islanders at war with each other, with a flotilla of 200 war canoes and 10,000 warriors from Tahiti setting out for the island of Eimeo (Moorea), fifteen miles to the west. In a recent war, an ambitious chief on the island of Raiatea (100 miles northwest of Tahiti) had been promoting worship of the god Oro with an appetite for human sacrifice greater than the appetite of rival gods on other islands. Cook found a mellowed Oro worship dominating the island of Tahiti.
Captain Cook remembered in Greenwich, London, Engand
On 26 October 1788, eleven years after Cook's last visit, another British ship, the Bounty, arrived in Tahiti, captained by a thirty-three-year-old former sailing master for Cook, William Bligh. Captain Bligh's mission was to collect saplings of breadfruit trees for transport to the West Indies where British plantation owners were in need of a source of food for plantation workers. The Bounty stayed in Tahiti for five months. On April 28, 1789, sailing away from Tahiti, the crew mutinied, led by one of Bligh's officers, Fletcher Christian. The mutineers put Bligh and eighteen others in a small boat called a launch, and the mutineers sailed the Bounty back to Tahiti. They were not allowed to stay, and with a few women the mutineers sailed away. They looked for a place out of reach from British authorities, and on January 15, 1790 they landed at Pitcairn Island.
The Tahitian chieftain most friendly with the British was Pomare. The additional British captains arriving at Tahiti accepted his claim to hegemony. They gave him guns in trade and helped him in his battles with other islanders. British missionaries arrived, sent by a non-denominational Protestant group called the London Missionary Society. Pomare befriended the missionaries, and the missionaries favored both peace and Pomare, but, with the British unwilling to apply force to create order among the islands, the missionaries were unable to stop the warring.
By now, islanders were passing to each other diseases that had arrived with the Europeans – diseases for which they had undeveloped immunities. Many islanders were dying. And, in 1803, Pomare died. His son Otu became head of the family, with the title Pomare II. The missionaries remained allied with the Pomare family. Despite their pacifism they wanted to see Pomare II successful in uniting the islanders under his rule. Other chieftains on Tahiti became fed up with what they saw as Pomare's pretensions of power, and in 1808 they drove him from Tahiti to the nearby island of Eimeo (Moorea). These other chieftains were not so friendly toward the missionaries, and the missionaries left Tahiti for other islands.
Pomare II believed that his fall was a sign of having lost favor with the god Oro, and, aided by the missionary Henry Nott, he began paying more attention to the god of the Christians. Pomare II organized military support from his kinsmen on the islands of Raiatea, Bora Bora and Huahine. Warring resumed, with Pomare winning the decisive Battle of Feii on November 12, 1815. His victory was a victory also for the Christians. The warfare culture of the islanders had been changed by the influence that the missionaries had on Pomare II. In victory Pomare surprised the Tahitians. He pardoned all who laid down their weapons. When defeated warriors returned from the hills they found their homes had not been set afire and that their wives and children had not be slaughtered.
Centralized authority among chiefs was not traditional in Tahiti, but the missionaries welcomed Pomare's new power. Distress from disease, civil war and death won for them serious attention to their teachings. They launched a campaign to teach the islanders to read for the sake of reading scripture. There were mass conversions in hope of the supernatural protections that Christianity offered. The missionaries told the islanders how to dress. The climate was suitable to exposing the skin to the greater cool of open air, but for the missionaries little clothing was indecent exposure.
Another lifestyle promoted by the missionaries was manufacturing. The missionaries set up a sugar refinery and a textile factory. In 1817, Tahiti acquired it first printing press, and, in 1819, cotton, sugar and coffee crops were planted.
Pomare II asked the missionaries for advice on laws, and the missionaries, being monarchists and wanting Pomare to be a proper monarch, advised him that the laws would have to be his, not theirs. They made suggestions, however, and in September, 1819, Pomare produced Tahiti's first written law. There was protection of life and property, observance of the Sabbath, a sanctification of marriage and a judiciary to maintain the laws.
Pomare II died in 1824 at the age of forty-two, leaving behind an eight-year-old daughter and a five-year-old son. The son, Pomare III, ruled in name while being educated by the missionaries. He died in 1827 of an unknown disease, and the daughter, then eleven, became Queen Pomare IV.
By 1829, of those who had arrived at Pitcairn on the Bounty only seven remained, but with their offspring they numbered 86. The ages old problem of population had developed. Given the level of their talent and technology, the island's resources were not enough to sustain them. The supply of timber on Pitcairn was decreasing, and the availability of water was erratic.
After the end of the Napoleonic wars the Pitcairn islanders were discovered by and had friendly contact with the British Navy and British authorities. In 1830, Tahiti's Queen Pomare IV invited the Pitcairners to return to Tahiti, and in March, 1831, a British ship transported them there. The Tahitians welcomed the Pitcairners and offered them land. But having been isolated and not having developed any immunity to the diseases now on Tahiti, the Pitcairners suffered. Fourteen of them died. The Tahitians took up a collection for the surviving Pitcairners, and for $500 a whaling captain took them back to Pitcairn.
Copyright © 2003-2015 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.